Disney Captures Reality with “Planes: Fire and Rescue”

11:00 PM

Ramona Cox, aka "Skychick" and airshow helicopter pilot
and legend Chuck Aaron, who was a Consultant on the movie.
Naturally, Aaron is pointing to, what else...the helicopter!
By Ramona Cox,
Airplanista Guest Blogger

“They fly in when others fly out.”

Those words struck a chord with me when asked to join aviation writers for a pre-screening of Disney’s new film, Planes: Fire and Rescue.

I’ll never forget watching the courageous aerial fire-fighters dodging massive plumes of black smoke while diving well below the rim of the Tuolumne Canyon to drop huge loads of fire retardant. It was a desperate attempt to protect Groveland Airport (E45), which is home to Pine Mountain Lake Airpark…a fly-in community packed with hangar-homes and private aircraft. Most of the community had been evacuated by the time the 1990 Yosemite National Park fire had spread to within 200 yards of my home and ¼ mile from the airport. It was the combination of air attack and a strategically executed backfire that stopped it and I will forever be thankful to the fire-fighting community.

If you ponder the subject, it’s clear that the creative team at Disneytoon Studios took on a very tough assignment to capture the realism, the excitement, the emotions and the dangers that real life fire fighters and first responders face every time a disaster or near catastrophe erupts. And, they did so in an animated cartoon that by necessity required its share of humor. Research was the key word used throughout the day and they also spent two full years perfecting the animation of fire which had never been done on this scale and to the level of realism depicted in the film.

Planes: Fire & Rescue is an adventure-comedy which masterfully uses animation to depict the true to life experience of the aerial fire-fighting community. It takes place in historic Piston Peak National Park, which was inspired by Yellowstone National Park. A crew of fire-fighting aircraft protect the park from a rampant wildfire.

The theme of the movie revolves around second chances. Similar to losing your aviation medical and getting it back, second chances are what all of us hope will be available if and when we need them. In the case of Dusty Crophopper, the famous air-racer from the first Planes film, full-throttle air racing had taken a toll on his engine jeopardizing his racing career. In light of that, Dusty decided to shift gears and try his wings in the world of aerial firefighting.

As it turns out, the films research department discovered that using a crop duster for firefighting was not a far stretch from reality. In 1955, a re-purposed crop duster, known as a SEAT (Single Engine Air Tanker) was one of the first wildfire attack aircraft used on Mendocino’s National forest fire.

As the new kid on the block, Dusty has to prove himself when he joins the seasoned fire-fighting team, which includes fire and rescue helicopter Blade Ranger (whose tail number is the same as Cal-Fire’s helicopter based at Hemet-Ryan).  Like most mentors, Blade Ranger has his hands full with Dusty whose air-racing ego needs a little taming. Spirited super-scooper “Dipper” is a sexy and very capable female team member whose flirty character keeps Dusty on his toes. Heavy-lift helicopter Windlifter was created to honor the wisdom of the American Indian community. He is a man of few words, but when he speaks, everyone listens. Ex-military transport Cabbie (a C-119) has the task of transporting The Smokejumpers, an enthusiastic group of brave all-terrain vehicles that handle the ground mission. Maru, the mechanic tug, reminded me of the old-timers at my home airport (KTOA) who often have no budget for parts, but always manage to fabricate something from nothing usually claiming “it’s better than new”…which is often true.

Prior to viewing the film, I wondered if it would have any basis of reality. We’ve all watched aviation films and laughed as we noted that the airspeed indicator looked like it came out of a 1956 Chevy or the pilot used phrases that would never be used in real flying. So I called my friend and aviation legend Patty Wagstaff, an aerobatic champion who also worked as a pilot for Cal Fire. As it turns out, Patty had introduced the Disney team to Cal Fire which was essential for their research. I was a bit surprised to hear Patty say… “They truly captured the experience of uncertainty, turbulence and the intensity of communications necessary to accomplish a mission.”

Also validating Disney’s work was renowned Red Bull airshow pilot, Chuck Aaron, who greeted me in the Disneytoon media area. Being a friend, I took him aside, looked him straight in the eye and asked the key question. Could the specific type of helicopters in the film actually do every maneuver shown?  His answer was unequivocally… “Yes! After advising them on the capabilities of each helicopter, I watched each scene and they spent months making over 100 changes as a result of my input.”  Consultants in every field did the same and each time the animation was tweaked to reflect realism.

The level of research and attention to detail was unbelievable. As Director/Co-Writer Bobs Gannaway expressed, their objective was to build a movie out of truth making it exciting for aviators while paying sincere homage to the dedicated individuals who risk their lives every day while fire-fighting. I knew that aviation had captured their souls when Gannaway keenly likened an engine oil analysis to a “blood test for an aircraft”.  They spent countless hours with the Cal Fire group at the Hemet-Ryan and Grass Valley Air Attack bases as well as Redding where they hung out with US Forest service personnel and smoke jumpers. The perfectionist personality of Cal Fire’s battalion chief, Travis Alexander, served as inspiration for one of the main characters. When Travis was asked “What do you tell a pilot that makes the perfect drop?”  He responded, “There is no such thing”.

During their visits, they vigilantly listened to every word and phrase used by the firefighting community to select statements and context that would be used throughout the film. They would create a sequence and then ask…. “Does this sound realistic? How would you say this? What would this character do in this situation?” They had water dropped on them by aircraft and were given lessons on the how’s and why’s of aerial fire-fighting formations. Some team members flew in simulators or actual aircraft and the head of animation personally tested forestry service all-terrain vehicles to determine their maximum capabilities with the result being input into sophisticated animation software for absolute accuracy.

I’m happy to report that at least one of the film crew was inspired enough to get his pilot’s license and many of the animators, who took up flying RC aircraft to learn about aerodynamics, have kept up the sport. I left the screening with a renewed sense of praise and thankfulness for the brave men and women that serve us all so faithfully well and I kept thinking about the how the creators of Planes: Fire & Rescue had captured the most important element of all…there exists among us those who will fly in, when others fly out.

Scheduled to hit the theatres July 18th, Planes: Fire and Rescue has plenty of life’s lessons and lots of innocent, yet spicy humor created to keep both children and adults entertained.

Ramona Cox, aka Skychick, is an adventure pilot, speaker and aviation writer. Her air-camping expeditions can be seen at www.skychick.com. She can be reach via email at ramona@skychick.com. She is Sales Manager for MotoArt, a Los Angeles based company that fabricates corporate furniture from authentic commercial and military aircraft.  www.motoart.com. Cox is scheduled to present a forum on her Adventure Flying at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh on Tuesday, July 29th, 1PM in Forum 7.

You Might Also Like